Working as medics we are often rushed off our feet with barely time to take a comfort break or breathe. There are competing demands on our attention from patients and colleagues as well as the endless list of ‘must-do’ tasks. So, how can we possibly find the time to re-charge our batteries?
If we think of energy as our capacity to do work, then the more energy we have, the more productive we will be. So, in order to work more effectively, it is important that we do re-charge so that we can continue to work effectively and not burn out.
Many will be with me in feeling completely washed out by the end of a day in clinical practice. A colleague of mine once described this as feeling like a petrol station where everyone is filling up but she is left drained with nothing left to give. This feeling has only intensified for most of us over recent years as the workload has increased exponentially.
When it becomes more challenging to re-charge at home, thinking about ways to re-charge effectively at work becomes ever more relevant. Below are a list of suggestions I have compiled from research and the shared experience of other doctors.
1. Get moving
The evidence for the health benefits of physical activity is now very compelling. Of equal importance are the negative effects to our health in being sedentary for long periods of time, even if you are otherwise very active.
Getting active can rejuvenate both your body and your mind. So, if you feel your energy level dropping, go for a brisk walk. Get some fresh air. Get up and move about.
2. Take a break from screen time.
This includes smart phones. In general practice in particular, we are seated in front of a screen for much of our day. This not only means that we have been sedentary for far too long but that our eyes and brain have not had a rest.
Our screen lives are incredibly distracting. Messages and e-mails from all parts of our life clamber for our attention and add to that ever-increasing ‘must-do’ list.
3. Do something different
Do something fun that distracts you even for a few minutes, like a crossword or another type of puzzle. Some GPs I know have the card game “patience” or a chess game open on their desktop as a quick distraction. These can activate the reward system of the brain, making us feel more motivated.
4. Plan something to look forward to
Working on things that you don’t enjoy can drain your energy. One way to get yourself through this is to have something to look forward to once you’re done. The anticipation can give you the energy that you need to get through your tasks more efficiently.
5. Take a pause
Stress is one of the biggest energy zappers that there is. If you feel that you are becoming stressed, pause for a moment, take 2-3 deep breaths and perhaps change posture. This alone can sometimes be enough to relax and re-energise.
6. Get active rest
In his book, “The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone Is Not Enough” Dr. Matthew Edlund explains that rest is a major pathway to rejuvenation. He differentiates between passive rest, when you sleep or relax in front of the TV, and active rest; active rest being conscious and directed.
One example that I love is his walking to music suggestion, which can be done on the walk to your car or your commute. Imagine, or put on your headphones and listen to, one fast paced track and one slow paced track and pace your body to their beat and rhythm. 20 seconds on each is often enough to rejuvenate.
7. Relaxation strategies
Engage in some quick and simple relaxation strategies such as deep breathing or a 3-minute mindfulness breathing space. Time-out for a few minutes in this way can be an immensely powerful way to rejuvenate. I had never really thought these would work and certainly did not feel that I had the time to try them but after another GP shared that she used these, I thought that I should give these a try. They do work!
8. Healthy eating
As doctors, we all know that following a diet that is low fat and low in sugar helps our wellbeing in the long term. It is all too easy, especially on shift work or if you never make your own lunch like me, to eat high sugar, high fat foods and to neglect our own health. Healthy power snacks such as nuts, seeds or blueberries are a good way to boost low energy throughout the day. Drinking plenty of water can also help as thirst can sometimes masquerade as fatigue.
9. Look at or think about something you love.
Positive emotions, like hope and gratitude, make you feel good and therefore more energised and positive. You can kick-start these by looking at something meaningful such as a photo or picture that you love, flowers, or anything else you’re grateful to see. Some people integrate this into a formal “gratitude practice”. An A & E doctor that I met recently recommended the meditation app Omvana. He told me that he uses it each morning to set himself up for the day.
10. Shake up your routine.
New experiences can make us more alert. No need for anything dramatic – something simple like if you are right-handed, use your left hand to do a task at work, even for a minute.
11. Engage with colleagues at work
Developing friendships at work helps to buffer from burnout. Even having just one person that you gel with or that you feel is on your side can make an enormous difference to your sense of worth and wellbeing.
Lunchtime or early morning get-togethers or team coffee breaks help develop a sense of support and camaraderie. Likewise, chatting with a colleague, laughing and sharing stories can help us re-energise.
12. Phone a good friend or a loved relative
It might be for a quick catch up, or a chance to vent some of the day’s frustrations. Connecting like this can recharge your batteries and make you feel more motivated.
13. Check your emotional state
What is here right now? Are you feeling in a negative mood? Are you ruminating on things that haven’t gone so well? Are you feeling worried, anxious, angry, resentful or hurt? Do you regret something that happened or a conversation you had?
Emotions can be distracting and take up a lot of headspace. I have wasted so much energy worrying about patients or ruminating about whether I could have handled a situation better. Finding a way to shift away from this is key. This might be writing things down so that you can park it. It might be by taking a walk or any of the other strategies mentioned here.
Dr Roger Neighbour calls this ‘House Keeping’, recognising in his landmark book, ‘The Inner Consultation’ that “a consultation is not over until you are ready for the next one. ”
14. Try to resolve any conflicts
Concern over conflict can eat away at your attention and tire you quickly. Try to find a way of managing conflict better. That might mean setting clearer boundaries and saying “no” or by confronting issues head on. It has to be a way that feels comfortable and sustainable to you. It may be helpful to have external help to do this via a mentor, coach or therapist.
Do something nice for a colleague. There is strong evidence that this helps improve our wellbeing on many levels. It’s energising to think about someone else and the actual act of giving creates a natural high. Even something small, such as making the receptionists a cup of tea.
16. Have a good laugh
Laughter is a natural energiser, releasing endorphins, which can re-energise us. Laughter has always been a crucial factor for me at work, whether as a GP or when working at McDonalds (many years ago!). Looking back, I realise that this had stopped for me in the last nine months and should have been an early warning sign.
Lastly, if you are unwell or very unhappy at work then it may be too late to try any of these. You might want to consider whether you can take a break to gain some headspace and clarity. And to find a way to get paid to do what you enjoy. As I found out the hard way, there is no need to make yourself and everyone around you miserable. Life is too short.
This is the 3rd part of a four-part series of posts on physician burnout. The next one will look at ways that we can increase our re-charge at home.